After sixth grade, when she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, Erika Coogle heard the same thing over and over:
“You can’t do that.”
“You shouldn’t try that.”
Coogle ignored the naysayers.
Now, more than a decade after that seemingly insurmountable diagnosis, she has begun work as a special education teacher at the preschool operated by the Knox Educational Service Center at New Hope in Mount Vernon.
She interacts one-on-one with 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds who have learning disabilities, behavioral issues or need other special education assistance.
Those who meet Coogle probably wouldn’t guess that she has a disease that will last her lifetime. She moves about without obvious disability.
“My body at 26 is a lot older than it looks,” she said, smiling. “Most of what I experience is muscle and joint tightness.”
As she began high school in New York state, some said the odds were against her graduating. Her cerebral palsy caused periodic absences; she was out once for an entire month.
But Coogle fought back, determined not to allow the disease to dictate her life. She earned good grades. She ran cross country for two years before the pressure on her joints became too severe. She was elected vice president of her senior class. At 18, she skydived and bungee jumped.
“I’ve already done many of the things on my bucket list,” she said, laughing.
Coogle excelled in early childhood education courses at Hudson Valley Community College and at Russell Sage College, a private school in Troy, N.Y. She filled several campus leadership roles, including being selected to represent Hudson Valley at the National Conference on Student Leadership in Orlando, Fla.
In an interview with the Hudson Valley student newspaper, Coogle credited cerebral palsy with “teaching me so much.”
“It taught me determination and hard work,” she said.
At the Knox ESC preschool Coogle works with children who have Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs), specific plans to meet their special needs.
“I had an IEP myself,” she said. “I know what it feels like to be labeled. I want to give kids the tools they need to be independent.”
Coogle served last year as a long-term substitute teacher in the Dover (Ohio) City Schools. Her husband Isaac works with a certified public accounting firm in that community. She is staying with friends closer to Mount Vernon until she and Isaac move closer to Knox County next month.
"Erika is a valued member of our staff. Every teacher, aide and administrator here is dedicated to providing the very best education to all of our children," said Jackie Nutt, preschool director.
Coogle’s professional goal is simple and direct.
“I work in special education to help every child reach their potential,” she said.
“As they grow up special needs kids are often told they can’t do this or can’t do that. Their special needs don’t mean they can’t do it; they just have to do it in a different way.”